Study Guide for Belting (2011)

General notes: There is a great deal wrong with this book. For a brief overview of some of these problems see the review by Dominique Raynaud in Isis, 103 (2012) pp. 570-572 (available through JSTOR). For a detailed rebuttal of Belting's claim that Islamic art is – or was – aniconic, see Gülru Necipoğlu, "The Scrutinizing Gaze in the Aesthetics of Islamic Visual Cultures: Sight, Insight and Desire" in Olga Busch and Avinoam Shalem (edd.) Gazing Otherwise: Modalities of Seeing In and Beyond the Lands of Islam, Muqarnas 32 (2015), 23-61.
   So why am I asking you to read it? First, because it gets one very important thing right – Renaissance perspective's debt to Islamic optics. Belting is wildly wrong, however, to think he is discovering this for the first time or that this has not been recognized in the history of science. See: Graziella Federici Vescovini, "Alhazen vulgarisé: le 'De li aspecti' d'un manuscrit du Vatican (Moitié du XIVe siècle) et le Troisième Commentaire d'Optique de Lorenzo Ghiberti", Arabic Science and Philosophy, 8 (1998), pp. 185-99 and Gérard Simon, "Optique et perspective: Ptolémée, Alhazen, Alberti
", Revue d'histoire des sciences, 54 (2001) pp. 325-350, as well as many previous and subsequent works by the same and other authors.
   Second, I am hoping to use Belting to teach you some other important things, perhaps that he did not intend, and specifically how to avoid Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and the related historical problem of 'presentism'.
   With that in mind, please read the first Blichwechsel, pp.48-54, and answer the questions below before you start the rest of the book.


Blichwechsel #1: Orhan Pamuk and Perspective as a "Betrayal"

1. In reading this section look for examples of the following:

people outside a culture (today):

people outside a culture (at some previous time):

people inside a culture (today):

people inside a culture (at some previous time):


2. Who is Orhan Pamuk and when did he live?
3. Who were Mehmet II, Beyazid II and Murad III, and when did they live?
4. Who were Gentile Bellini, Naks Osman and Seyyid Lokman and when did they live?
5. Who is Sokullo Mehmed Pasha when did he live? (Making connections: in what role was he also mentioned by Giancarlo Casale.)
6. Order Belting's figures 14, 15, 17 & 18 from 'most perspectival' to 'least perspectival'. Are any of these images completely lacking in perspective?
7. Place Hans Belting, and the people in questions 2-5, into the frame given in question (1).
8. Belting is advancing two theses in the sections we are reading this week:
    8.1 Islamic art was aniconic, even before the development of perspectival art.
    8.2 Islamic art resisted using perspective, even after its development, treating it as a "betrayal".
9. Which of the groups in your grid from question (1) give the best evidence towards accepting or rejecting 8.1 and 8.2?
10. On balance does the evidence presented in Blichwechsel #1 incline you to accept or reject 8.1 and 8.2?
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Introduction
1. What was the original meaning of 'perspective' (Latin perspectiva)?
2. Does Belting subscribe to either the 'Bookshelf' thesis or the 'Rise/Decline' thesis?
3. What is the difference between an iconic theory and an aniconic theory?
4. What is the difference between 'seeing' and 'gazing'?
5. What does Belting mean by Blickwechsel? Can you suggest a better English translation?
6. How does Belting propose to avoid or mitigate Eurocentrism?
7. Define to your own satisfaction:
   7.1 symbolic form (see also p. 15ff.)
   7.2 vanishing point


Chapter 1 
Vocabulary: 'theocentric' = 'centered on religion'
'anamorphosis' (abstract n.), 'anamorph' (concrete n.), 'anamorphic' (adj.). A picture created by using non-standard rules of perspective, leading to an image that may be unrecognizable when viewed directly, but which becomes intelligible when viewed from a special point, or through a special device such as a cylindrical mirror.

In this image an anamorphic drawing on a sheet of paper becomes recognizable as a small temple or belvedere, when its reflection is viewed in a cylindrical mirror paced at its center.

1. How did "the world become a picture" after the invention of perspective (p.13)?
2. Why was perspectival art impossible for the Greeks and Romans?
3. What are some of the differences between our visual experiences and a perspectival image?
4. What role did imagination play in the Islamic theory of visual perception?
5. What does Belting mean by 'represented geometry' in contrast to 'representational geometry'? Can you suggest better labels?
6. Define to your own satisfaction 'arabesque'.

Chapter 2
1. In this chapter Belting proposes that images were forbidden in at least some places and times during Islamic history. Where and when were they forbidden? Not forbidden?
2. "From the Islamic point of view the new revelation of the Koran not only fulfilled the salvific history of Judaism and Christianity but also transcended it. Islam could achieve recognition, however, only if it protected itself from every form of syncretism and strengthened the boundaries separating it from other religions." (pp. 62-3). When and how is this supposed to have happened? Are the answers to these two questions consistent with what else you know about the growth of Islam?
3. One page 63 Belting introduces a further argument supporting his claim for the banning of images, the "breath of life" argument. He introduces at least three sub-arguments to support this new thesis up to page 67. How many of these arguments are convincing?
4. What is the main thesis of the section beginning on p. 67: The Koran as Scripture and Script? How does this support his main thesis in the chapter?
5. Is the image shown in fig. 27 and reconstructed in fig. 28 a counterexample to Belting's main thesis?
6. (Pp. 78-84) How does Belting reconcile the well known images in Persian art with his claim that Islamic art is aniconic?
7. P. 82 and fig. 30: "The women are sitting in a semicircle in an ornate palace room that gives the effect of a folding screen, before which the prince is standing. ...[T]he room consists only of a semicircular wall surface shown at a slight angle, and a tiled floor folded into the surface and presented in elevation." What do you see?

Blichwechsel #2: Pictures with a Living Gaze.
1. "The modern [Western] picture, which is rooted in the invention of perspective, can scarcely be understood without the exchange of glances with which it claims the viewers attention." (p. 84) Is this a defensible generalization? How many pictures in the does this apply to in the Renaissance Art exhibition at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, which forms part of the Galileo's World exhibition?
2. "An exchange of glances with pictures replicates the exchange of glances in real life. ... [But in] photographs we always know that the subject is actually looking at the camera, ... " (p. 87). Do we?
3. How would Belting describe a Skype conversation?

Chapter 3
1. When and where did Ibn al-Haytham live? Who supported him?
2. p. 92: Does Belting support or oppose the 'Bookshelf' thesis?
3. According to Belting, what two innovations during Ibn al-Haytham's lifetime supported his work in optics, and more generally the Islamic refutation of Greek and Roman authorities?
4. p. 95-6: Does Belting support or oppose the 'Rise and Decline' thesis? Note the reference to Kamal al-Din (d. 1320).
5. Reconstruct Ibn al-Haytham's argument from being blinded in strong light to rejection of the thesis that visual rays are emitted by the eyes.
6. Explain Plato's theory of vision, as an example of the thesis that visual rays are emitted by the eyes.
7. According to Ibn al-Haytham, where does the cone of vision end? What key elements is he missing in the structure of the eye according to modern physiology?
8. How is beauty linked to light for Ibn al-Haytham?
9. According to Belting, what is the status of pictorial art for Ibn al-Haytham?
10. According to Belting, what is the difference between the Eastern and Western attitudes to geometry? (cf. Ch.1, q.5 above).
11. What is the difference between signs and pictures? Does the distinction work for Egyptian hieroglyphics? Yankee rebus books? Emoticons?
12. How does the difference between signs and pictures figure in Beltings account of geometrical ornamentation?

Blichwechsel: Kepler rediscovers the camera obscura. This section discusses the a shift that occurred after and perhaps replaced the shift to perspectival seeing. As we have yet to read about that, it is out of place and I suggest postponing reading it. However, if you are eager, consider this question:
13. Describe the physical construction, use and aim of al-Haytham's camera obscura and either Kepler's or Descartes' version, using neutral language where possible. How are they similar and different? Should we really be using the same term (camera obscura) to talk about all of them?

 

 Chapter 4
1. Who were the Perspectivists and what did they say to offend the Ockhamists? (Hint: Compare 130-133 with 135).
2. What style of painting did Ambroglio Lorenzetti and his brother introduce? When and where?
3. What style of painting did Giotto di Bondone introduce? When and where? Is there a connection to the Lorenzetti brothers? Is there a connection to Taddeo Gaddi?
4. How, according to Belting, does Biagio Pelacani's concept of space differ from earlier ones? Is this physical space or space as seen in pictures?
5. When and where did Lorenzo Ghiberti live?
6. How did Ghiberti create the illusion of perspective on his famous panels for the doors of the Baptistry in Florence?
7. Where and when did Piero della Francesca live?
8. In De perspectiva pingendi (On Pespective for Painting) della Francesca introduces a now famous metaphor that a picture is like a window. From the viewpoint of the mathematical theory of optics, how is a picture like a window?
9. Why are tiled floors, rows of columns, and similar repeated shapes so common in perspectival pictures?

Blichwechsel: Alhazen or Euclid? The Option for Vitruvius?
10. What is the historical evidence that Ibn al-Haytham's ideas were actually used by Ghiberti and later Italian artists? Where is the weakest link, according to Belting?
11. How did the Renaissance obsession with Vitruvius affect the history of perpspective?


Chapter 5
1. Who was "architect Pippo" and who gave him that name?
2. What scene was depicted in Brunelleschi's 'first experiment in perspective'?
3. Belting's description of the experiment is not as clear as it might be, but try to decide what the experimenter was holding, where they were standing and the direction in which they were facing.
4. What is Brunelleschi's most famous architectural achievement? Look outside Belting for this answer.
5. Why did Brunelleschi chose the site for his experiment?
Vocabulary: Pilaster: a rectangular column, especially one projecting from a wall.
Entablature
: a horizontal, continuous lintel on a classical building supported by columns or a wall, often decorated with a painting or scene in relief.
Trompe l'oeil
: a painted to other design that deceives the eye (Fr.: l'oeil) into accepting a two dimensional image as three dimensional (see e.g. the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the powerpoint on 'Perspective in the History of Western Art').
6. How does Belting think the development of perspective contributed to architecture?
7. How does Belting think the development of perspective competed with architecture?
8. What is the relation of a theatrical stage to a perspective picture?
9. How did Sebastian Serlio use perspective in stage design?
10. How do perspective theater designs connect to paintings of cityscapes?
11. Who was the Duke Federico of Urbino, when and where did he live, and how did he connect the previous historical actors considered here?

Blichwechsel: The geometry of Muqarnas.
12. What is a muquarna?
13. How are muquarnas related to Islamic mosaics?
14. How does the third dimension differ in a muquarna and in perspective painting?

Chapter 6.
1. What symbol did Leon Battista Alberti adopt to denote his special interests and expertise?
2. How is the eye of the viewer related to the image in a perspectival picture?
3. Why exactly was perspective painting supposed to be a problem for Nicholas of Cusa?
4. "The myth of Narcissus, just like the myth of Medusa, was an expression of an ancient culture that stood in irreconcilable contrast to the modern era." How much of what follows is plausible, given the universal appearance of mirrors among the most ancient human artifacts?
5. Who is 'the new Narcissus'?
6. How is the eye of the viewer related to the horizon and the vanishing point in a perspectival picture?
7. What (if anything) is the difference between a perspectival picture of an outside scene and a perspectival picture of an interior?

Blichwechsel: The Mashrabiyya as a Symbolic Form.
8. What is a mashrabiyya?
9. How do Eastern and Western gazes differ in relation to windows?
10. How has Belting used the key phrase 'symbolic form' in this chapter?

Conclusion: This is less a conclusion than a review of other literature that Belting thinks supports his case. He restates, perhaps more clearly, a number of theses about the gaze, and says things about traditional Islamic societies that you may find objectionable. Reading optional.

Copyright (c) Peter Barker 2016, 2018.